911 Reverberates in Boston

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Aqua Teen Hunger
Force. They may be
scary looking but
they are cartoons, not

On September 11th, 2001, George Bush made one of the most significant and critical errors of his presidency.

Personally, I think George Bush is a total boob, and he has made many mistakes and we will all be paying for some of them for years to come. This particular mistake, though, is one that a lot of other people in the Office of the Presidency may have made, so I don’t want to lean too hard on Ol’ George for this one. But it was a mistake. Here is what happened.

A well trained and well funded group of nineteen criminals hijacked four airplanes. They flew three of them into buildings and a fourth into a cornfield in Pennsylvania, having been thwarted by an impromptu attack by the passengers on the plane (they had planned it seems to fly that plane into a public building in Washington D.C.). Thousands died.

The mistake that Bush made in concert with his advisors was to ground all nonemergency civilian aircraft for a number of days. This had immediate and long term economic effects and it underscored the interpretation of this attack as a terrorist act as opposed to a criminal one.

I have no problem with the idea that this was a terrorist act. However, treating it like a terrorist act instead of a criminal act was the beginning of a series of events … many of which may have been appropriate responses to terrorism but not to a criminal act … that have changed world politics, the US and world economy, and society itself.

Six years after “911” an advertising firm working for Turner Broadcasting company placed several dozen devices in urban areas across the United States. Some of these devices were noticed in Boston by people who jumped to the conclusion that they were bombs. The bomb squad in Boston detonated several of them. Mayor Menino is on the verge of calling for human sacrifice of the perpetrators. Turner is being threatened with a law suit. On hearing of this reaction in Boston, Turner ordered the advertising firm to immediately remove all of the devices from the numerious cities around the country where they have been placed. (See this article for typical coverage of the fiasco.)

I remember the days after 911 when the sky was so strangely quiet. I lived in South Minneapolis under one of the flyways. A day after the grounding of the airplanes, it was eerie to have the neighborhood be so quiet. At one point I heard a jet flying, and looked out to see a military jet fighter streaking by. The grounding itself made everyone think and act and feel differently to almost as much of a degree as the images of the World Trade Center Towers going down.

A few weeks after 911, I went down to the local deli to pick up some sandwiches. There was an older African American guy in a wheelchair in the deli. He is a local fixture, semi-homeless, a bit crazy but basically a nice guy and what one would call “harmless” (whatever exactly that means). He was leaving the deli at the same time as some folks were coming in. These folks were not from the neighborhood … actually, visiting from the Dakotas their daughter the college student in her new apartment. There was a bit of a tussle as they were coming in the deli and guy-in-wheelchair was trying to make his way out the door. No big deal but it flustered the visitors. They were already a bit nervous being in the city, and I strongly suspect people of color were not a familiar site to them. One of them mentioned to the other, along with a sigh-like letting out of breath one expresses after a close call … “Eh, I thought that guy was a terrorist,” and the other one said “Yea, me too.”

An old crazy guy in a wheelchair trying to make his way through a too-narrow doorway. What a threat.

Because of 911.

We let the congress pass the Patriot Act. Quakers and Unitarians are infiltrated by the FBI. We let them go to war in Iraq. We now routinely torture most of our prisoners (instead of just now and then). One has to be careful what one says.

Because of 911.

And now a crazy advertising scam with a cartoon character giving you the finger and some bells and whistles to attract your attention shuts down Boston and has the usually very sane Mayor Menino foaming at the mouth.

But not just because of 911. Rather, because 911 was the most successful terrorist attack ever, instead of merely a horrendous criminal act. We are like a woman in a physically abusive relationship who winces whenever her husband makes a quick move, or a dog treated so badly it cowers when a shadow passes across its eyes.

This is what George Bush should have done: I thought this at the time, dammit, and probably many others did too. He should have, in concert with the 50 governors and the mayors of the 100 largest cities (these people are organized to some degree, FEMA has their phone numbers and there is a way of communicating, so this is not unrealistic) ordered law enforcement officers onto every plane taking off for the indefinite future, maybe a few days, until this was figured out. Since the attacks seemed to be without major weapons and a matter of overpowering the crews, a few beefy guys and gals in the front of every airplane would have thwarted any further attacks. A few hours of grounding to get this organized followed by 12 hours of steadily increasing flights thusly guarded, would have still had an effect on air travel but the long term psychological effect would have been the exact opposite of what actually happened.

It would have been “Screw you” rather than “I just peed in my pants.” George Bush peed in our collective national pants when he caved to the terrorists at the first possible opportunity.

Instead of becoming a stronger society, we have become a society that is so skiddish that we can’t go to the deli without fear of terrorist attack. We can’t see a piece of junk in the corner and not think it is a bomb. And we are engaged in a long term war responsible for tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties because we are so skiddish we allow our government to talk us into anything.

If those planes had flown later that day, next morning at the latest, and we stuck our collective middle finger in the air at these criminals, hunted them down and captured them of course, but as criminals, traffic would have been a bit lighter yesterday in Boston.

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